Cosimo and Donatello

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 5, The Renaissance. Read more

Cosimo de’ Medici: The name is a puzzle; we find no medicos in his ancestry. In 1428, at the age of thirty-nine, he fell heir to the largest fortune in Tuscany, controlling a bank, extensive farms, some silk and woolen factories, and a varied trade with Russia, Syria, Scotland and Spain. He was on cordial terms with cardinals and sultans. He contributed so heavily to public works and charities that the populace quietly accepted his indirect dictatorship of Florentine affairs.

History also gives him its vote because he found money enough to finance a score of scholars, artists, poets and philosophers. He spent part of his fortune collecting classic texts. When Niccolo de’ Niccoli ruined himself in buying ancient manuscripts, Cosimo opened for him unlisted credit at the Medici bank, and supported him till Niccolo’s death.

He engaged forty-five copyists to translate such manuscripts as could not be bought. He placed his “precious minims” (as Walt Whitman described them) in the monastery of San Marco, or in an abbey at nearby Fiesole, or in his own library, and opened these collections to teachers and students without charge.

He established in Florence (1455) a Platonic Academy for the study of Plato, and enabled Marsilio Ficino to give half a lifetime to the translation and exposition of Plato’s works. Now, after a reign of four hundred years, scholasticism lost its sovereignty over philosophy in the West, and the exhilarating spirit of Plato entered like energizing yeast into the rising body of European thought.

[W]e must note in passing that, in this Florentine zenith, Filippo Brunelleschi raised over the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore a precarious cupola rising 133 feet above its supporting walls and domination, for leagues around, the panorama of a red-roofed Florence nestling like a bed of roses in the lap of Tuscan hills. In that same age Lorenzo Ghiberti designed, and carved in bronze, those paneled portals that made the Baptistery of Florence one of the lasting glories of the Renaissance.

Donatello, a pupil of Ghiberti, thought those doors too feminine in the grace of their line; his own spirit was masculine and boldly innovative. In 1430 he cast for Cosimo a bronze David that must have stirred Michelangelo to rivalry; here the nude figure in the round made its unblushing debut in Renaissance sculpture.

In Padua’s Piazza San Antonio, the ambitious sculptor, after six years of labor, raised the first important equestrian statue of modern times, representing the wily Venetian general nicknamed Gattamelata – the “honeyed cat.” Cosimo called Donatello back to Florence and gave him commission after commission.

Donatello not only produced a succession of masterpieces; he persuaded Cosimo to buy choice relics of ancient sculpture, and to place them in the Medici gardens for young artists to study. Patron and artist grew old together, and Cosimo took such care of the sculptor that Donatello rarely thought of money.

He kept his funds (says Vasari) in a basket suspended from the ceiling of his studio, and bade his aides and friends to take from it according to their needs, without consulting him.

He lived in simplicity, content, to the age of eighty. All the artists – nearly all the people – of Florence joined in the funeral that laid him to rest, as he had asked, in the crypt of San Lorenzo, beside Cosimo’s own tomb (1466).

Cosimo died in 1464. His son Piero inherited his father’s wealth, authority and gout, and earned the name Il Gottoso [the gouty]. He ruled unhappily for five years, died in 1469, and left his power to his son Lorenzo, the future Il Magnifico.